Rebels claim they shot down Georgian drones

SUKHUMI, Georgia, Reuters

Separatists in Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region said on Sunday they had shot down two Georgian spy drones over the territory they control, but Georgia denied there had been any flights in the area.

Russia, which backs the separatists in Abkhazia, said the drone flights were illegal and showed Georgia was intent on fanning tension in the regions.

Abkhazia, a sliver of land on the Black Sea coast, is the focus of a bitter row between Russia and Georgia’s pro Western leadership. Western diplomats warn tensions could spill over into large-scale conflict.

“Two Georgian spy drones were shot down by Abkhaz air defence forces at around 1600 local time (1200 GMT) today,” separatist foreign minister Sergei Shamba told Reuters.

“The drone flights are a demonstration of Georgia’s aggressive intentions towards Abkhazia,” he said by telephone.

A senior Georgian Interior Ministry official said there had been no flights by Georgian drones in the area on Sunday.

“There were no flights by Georgian UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) today over Abkhazia and this information is not true,” said Shota Utiashvili, head of the Interior Ministry’s analytical department, when asked about the Abkhaz report.

Russia’s ties with Georgia have been strained for more than a decade by Moscow’s support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions that threw off Georgian rule in wars in the 1990s.

President Vladimir Putin, who has opposed NATO eastward expansion, ordered closer ties with the two regions last month, a step Tbilisi said was a move towards annexation.

Tensions rose after Georgia accused Russia of shooting down one of its drones in April, a claim Russia denied.

Russia said Sunday’s drone flights had breached a United Nations resolution and a May 1994 ceasefire which called on all parties to observe the ceasefire on land, sea and in the air, and refrain from all military actions against each other.

“Rushing into reckless endeavours with unpiloted spy planes and forcing military preparations close to the conflict zone, the authorities in Tbilisi have taken the path of consciously fanning of tension in the region,” the Foreign Ministry said.

Russia last week sent extra peacekeeping troops to Abkhazia to counter what it called preparations by Tbilisi for a military attack. Western states said the deployment risked stoking tensions and Tbilisi denied it had any plans for an attack. (Reporting by Moscow bureau and Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Richard Balmforth)